I am grateful, Mr Sheridan, for this opportunity to talk about a dispute that has been going on for three years, and which highlights serious concerns about the work and responsibilities of the Legal Services Commission. At its heart is an issue about the role of the commission in relation to duty solicitor slots and the application of the 2010 standard crime contract and section 6 of the contract specification.
My constituent, Mr Majid, suffered when the Legal Services Commission—the LSC—launched an investigation into fraudulent activities at Knights Solicitors, which resulted in its terminating Knights’ unified contract for crime. My constituent is the son of immigrants and he has represented this country as an Olympic sportsman, winning world and European championships in weightlifting. Through his own honest endeavour and hard work, he has achieved the position of solicitor and advocate of our Supreme Court—something of which one might think we would be proud. Instead, today I am telling the story of how the LSC set out to wreck Mr Majid’s career and reputation.
I want to highlight two main points: first, the injustice suffered by my constituent and the reluctance of the LSC to deal with the matter, admit its errors and seek to put them right and, secondly, the appalling performance of the LSC, and of other agencies one might reasonably expect to call upon in such circumstances, such as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman—the PHSO—the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The last two bodies have distinguished themselves by washing their hands of concerns about the treatment Mr Majid received. The intervention of the PHSO leaves a great deal to be desired, and the behaviour of the LSC in dealing with the fraudulent activity of Sajjad Ahmed Khan of Knights Solicitors needs a great deal of scrutiny. It is not Mr Majid who should be suffering as a result of this affair. He is an innocent victim.
Mr Majid’s experience involves a catalogue of unsatisfactory behaviour by the LSC and an insipid response from the PHSO, which calls into question why we pay public money to support the two agencies. Mr Kamran Majid has done nothing wrong, but he has been dismissed as a nuisance and a pest by the agencies, because he is unwilling to accept their flawed reasoning, inadequate investigations and failure to address the core of his complaint. The matter has still not been resolved, despite three years of battling on Mr Majid’s part. During that time, my constituent has suffered unemployment, loss of income and damage to his reputation, and has been forced to accumulate considerable debts—he estimates that he is approximately £45,000 out of pocket.
Let me clarify a point that seems to have escaped the LSC, despite so many of its communications being mired in legal gobbledegook. Mr Majid was never an employee of Knights Solicitors. He was a freelance duty solicitor, an arrangement that the LSC approved and encouraged. The commission approved Mr Majid’s application to work as a freelance duty solicitor through
Knights Solicitors, and on
When Mr Majid complained to the LSC about how he had been disadvantaged as a result, Mr Ross Lane of the commission attempted to muddy the waters by claiming that Mr Majid knew that Knights Solicitors had been under investigation since 2009. Mr Majid discovered details of the investigation only through a subsequent county court order, but the LSC attempted to use that as a reason for dismissing his claim. Mr Lane, of course, knew that the LSC was doing everything it could to resist Mr Majid’s freedom of information requests, which would have shed light on the fact that it negligently registered him with a firm that was under investigation for fraud and that it withheld that information.
Mr Majid has a further complaint about the LSC. When he discovered that Knights Solicitors had lost its contract, he asked if he might be able to transfer his slots to another law firm. The LSC was quick to deny him the opportunity, and drew his attention to section 6 of the standard crime contract specification. It is unable, however, to offer any explanation as to why 14 other solicitors, identified by Mr Majid, have been given that same opportunity. I could name those people—people to whom the LSC afforded an opportunity it denied my constituent, people who have suffered no financial loss and no damage to their reputation or career—but I will not, because Mr Majid has no desire to cause them distress. I am happy, however, to share their names with the Minister, because the time for trying to brush what has happened under the carpet is at an end.
Let me further point out that some of those people benefited from the opportunity to transfer their slots before Knights Solicitors lost its contract, and some afterwards, so the LSC’s attempts to argue that it was an error that it has now put right do not stand up to scrutiny. It allowed flexibility in contract arrangements to safeguard the finances and reputation of 14 other people, but denied the opportunity to my constituent and attempted to cover that up.
We also need to ask some wider questions about the LSC. For how much public money is it responsible? I believe it is about £2 billion. To whom is it accountable? Can the Minister say in all candour that it is an agency in which he has confidence, or that its transition in April of this year to the Legal Aid Agency will have a significant impact on its behaviour? Mr Sajjad Ahmed Khan of Knights Solicitors—the real villain—is involved in a fraud that might run into millions of pounds, as a result of claiming legal aid fees for services that were never provided. It would appear that, after four years, Sajjad Ahmed Khan is finally likely to be brought before the solicitors disciplinary tribunal, but as yet there has been no effort to recover the millions he fraudulently obtained, and he still practises as a solicitor.
No wonder that the Government are being forced to make swingeing cuts in legal aid, which risks bankrupting thousands of small, decent law firms and calling the whole of our legal system into question. If the Legal Services Commission and its successor are allowed to cover up a multi-million pound fraud and penalise the innocent, because they dare to bring that fraud to the attention of the authorities and get too close to the truth, something rotten is going on.
I have attempted to assist my constituent since the summer of 2011. I have had numerous exchanges of correspondence with the LSC and the PHSO. Gina Brady of the LSC’s complaints handling team replied to my inquiries with a rather curt note confirming that the LSC was of the opinion that Mr Majid had received a full response to all his complaints and that it would not respond to any further inquiries. I am here today because the LSC is judge and jury—not willing to engage with a Member of Parliament, and not accountable to anyone. When it comes to malpractice, misuse of public funds, incompetence and cover-up, that agency might be top of the list.
I also find it shocking—I hope the Minister does as well—that the PHSO comes out of this case as toothless and hopeless, and all too ready to drop Mr Majid’s case on the say so of the LSC, whose arguments simply do not stack up. On
I hope that the Minister can see how unsatisfactory that is, and what a waste of public funds. The whole thing is all process and expensive form-filling. Like too many investigations we have come across recently, this is yet another example of investigators being more interested in process than in getting at the truth and delivering justice—wasting public money in endless hours of process, rather than finding out who did what wrong and what is required to put it right. I cannot believe that these people accept their bloated salaries and can sleep at night. No wonder there is a crisis of confidence in our public services.
Who is the responsible person? Is it the current chief executive or the former chief executive, Carolyn Regan, who, I understand, departed with the usual large pay-off after questions were asked about financial controls at the LSC? I do not know how many people work for the agency and its successor, but so far I have come across Stephen O’Connor—he seems to have played a major role in not enforcing section 6, other than against my constituent—Mr Rimmer, Mr Williams, Mr Forrester, Ross Lane, Sarah Aylwin, Natasha Hurley and Gina Brady. With so many fingers in the pie, it might be better if one person had set out to get to the bottom of the affair.
The Legal Services Commission has sought to deny that Mr Majid has a valid complaint. It must know perfectly well that it should not have accepted his registration, given that it knew that it was investigating the firm and that action was imminent. The LSC was wrong to allow 14 other solicitors to transfer business between law firms before and after the action against Knights Solicitors, to attempt to disguise what had actually happened and to quote a contract specification that it had failed to follow in other cases, but insisted on using against my constituent. Mr Majid suffered compared with his contemporaries. The LSC told the PHSO that Mr Majid knew about the investigation into Knights, which was not true, and it deliberately sought to avoid explaining that it was responsible for sitting on FOI requests that would have confirmed the basis of his complaints. It also behaved appallingly in the way that it handled the Sajjad Ahmed Khan fraud, and it gives no confidence that it is fit to discharge its public duties.
I would appreciate anything that the Minister could do to recognise how much my constituent has suffered and that he deserves to be compensated. I would welcome a thorough investigation into the agency. I believe that there is a precedent for a judicial review in a similar case, because too many people are gaining from the public purse who are not doing the job for which we are paying them. Someone is getting away with a cover-up, and it is plain wrong.